audre lorde (february 18, 1934 – november 17, 1092) was a womanist, poet, civil rights activist, and a friend to my mind. she once said,
caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
we live in a very self-indulgent society, those of us who have the fortune to be citizens of this #firstworld live in an alternative universe to the one imagined only a generation ago.
my grandmothers, for example, did not live to use cell phones or the internet. neither of them will ever update a facebook post or tweet. they didn’t live in the world where pizza could be ordered from a text. they would not have understood this world with nearly 250 television channels, magazines that are never printed, and the idea that you can ‘friend’ thousands without ever having sat across from one to share a single cup of coffee.
no, this world for them would be as strange and outlandishly impossible as a walk on mars. they were complex women. complex women with a singular focus: family first, family last. they taught me how to change diapers, make beds, grocery shop for a small army, wring a chicken’s neck, skin a squirrel, shuck peas, and pray.
i was raised to be a caregiver. as a girl child it was assumed that i would one day take on the responsibility for raising a family. that one day i, too, would be singularly focused: family first, family last.
under the tutorials of my grandmothers i learned the basic foundation for community organization, how to build a prayer circle, and raise money for the rent. they were explicit about the details and made me feel like the knowledge they passed on to me would literally save my life.
unfortunately, they both died as relatively young women. both their minds and their bodies given out after lifetimes of giving.
they never talked about being tired. they never mentioned aching feet or sore backs. i couldn’t tell you if either of my grandmothers ever even experienced a headache or if i ever saw either of them with a cold.
i remember one incident when my father’s mother rubbed her hands during a lesson on macrame and i wondered out loud if her arthritis we bothering her. she chastised me and told me to keep my eye on my work because it would be my responsibility to show the other kids how to make macrame baskets for our Easter display at church.
years after that macrame lesson, i was riding in the car with my mother’s mother wondering out loud about the life she’d lived. i was driving and trying on my own womanhood to see what fit. i actually asked her out loud who did she imagine she would have been if she had not had as many children as she’d had (she’d birthed 12 children). without hesitation she told me, ‘what could be is no matter. what is is what i deal in. thinking about could be is nothing but trouble especially when what is is right in front of you.’
both of these were poignant lessons for me as a little girl and as a new to it all young woman. because of the lessons i learned and the sacrifices i watched the women in my family make it never really occurred to me until recently that i could live a life where there was room for me.
when i was in college i read virginia wo0lf’s a room of one’s own. i told my mother i was reading it and i asked her what she thought about woolf’s idea that
the history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
my mother, always pragmatic, asked me, ‘do you require someone else to agree in order for you to know that you are free?’
she reminded me of our family heritage as descendants of enslaved americans.
we come from a long line of hardworking women and men who were told they were not free and yet lived life freely. they expressed their ‘freedom’ in their dedication to their families, and their communities.
she reminded me that although our freedom was opposed it was a foregone conclusion. and she challenged me to ask what does this mean…this idea that emancipation was something to be given from one human to another when inherently we are all born free?
i am still digesting that lesson. born female. born black. born in an urban center. born in a working class family. am i free? what is freedom for me?
i understand responsibility. i understand commitment. what i have not figured out is ‘where is there space for me?’
you see my foremothers were mighty women who through sheer gumption raised children and built churches from nothing and with no visible means.
they changed the world. literally.
but they also perished from high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, alzheimer’s, rheumatism, obesity, depression, and paralyzing grief.
they did not have rooms of their own. and all the money they earned they used to help someone else. there were no girls night out, or weekend getaways. there were prayer retreats, and family reunions. so for me there is no guideline for how self-care works. and the truth is that the examples that are set by women not born black living in urban centers simply don’t work for me.
when i was 26 years old, i realized that fear had paralyzed me. i’d earned my both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from a pretty high faluting university. and i’d gotten a job doing good in a community that i loved.
but every night my heart filled to brim with grief and fear. more mornings than not, the sun would rise without my eyes ever having closed. realizing i could not live that life for long, i packed up my car (a 5 cyclinder manual) and drove toward the mountains.
it was while i was making my way up the mountain ridge near pike’s peak in colorado that this mantra came to me
fear, it is the only enemy. with love i will defeat it.
that was the birth of fearfree living. you see 20 years ago on a mountain ridge, i made the decision that i would not live my life full of fear. that i would not allow the responsibilities lain at my feet to suffocate me.
i decided then that i would learn how to take care of me while simultaneously staying true to my cultural heritage to care for others. i understood then, as i do now that this was not how i was set up.
as a black woman, now middle-aged, i am not set up for self-care.
learning how to love me past my fears has been the most radical act of my life. it has meant learning how to listen to myself. it has meant saying yes to desert because sometimes cake is just cake. and learning how to switch off outside so that i can appreciate my son’s laughter.
it is because i’ve been on this journey for 20 years that i have lessons i’d like to share with you. lessons that have come sometimes at a high price. it is my hope that by sharing them, yours will be much cheaper.
my journey has been spiritual. it has been emotional. and it has been physically challenging. writing is my vehicle. this movement for self-preservation is revolutionary and so much bigger than regular weekly pedicures.
the self-care of which audre lorde spoke isn’t about girls nights out. instead it’s about the deep dive in. it’s about identifying the gaps in your life that literally places your sanity at risk and giving you the tools you need to fill them.
fearfree living is a lifestyle.
fearfree living is a community.
every one of us deserves to know that we are loved. that we are worthy. that with love as action, we can conquer fear.
that is why there is fearfree living.